Middle Schoolers 'Discover' Science

July 1, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Tyler Harris looked forward to the day his bearded dragon lizard would lay her eggs. Stephen Jakubowski was more intrigued with trying to calculate how fast his painted turtle could swim.

“I like science a lot,” Harris said.

That’s just the sort of response the Van Andel Education Institute hopes to hear from more and more kids in Grand Rapids.

Harris and Jakubowski were two of about 20 area students who attended the VAEI’s new middle school summer science education program this month.

“It’s really hands on,” Jakubowski said. “It’s not like school. It’s fun, and it’s more independent.”

The VAEI recently added 2,000 square feet of new lab space to its facility at 216 N. Division, and that, coupled with the hiring of a middle school science specialist, enabled the institute to offer the inaugural two-week middle school summer science program, the first session of which concluded Thursday.

The middle school program expands on the success of VAEI Science Academy programs. The Science Academy was established in July 2006 in response to numerous national studies indicating the United States is losing its global preeminence in science and technology, according to the institute.

“American students don’t always go into science and science-related fields, and those who score as well as other nations in science at the elementary level begin to fall off at the middle school and high school level,” said VAEI Associate Director Marcia Bishop. “We made a decision to offer a series of programs that would promote and enhance science education and increase the number of people who go into science-related fields.”

Science Academy programs are geared to fourth and fifth grade students because children at those grade levels are said to be at a “critical stage” in developing innate curiosity about the natural world. The Science Academy is an out-of-school program that requires a three-year commitment from students. The new middle school science education program, too, requires that students commit to a two-week session for three consecutive years.

“That is because we want to take what the research consistently says about how students learn science and put it into practice,” Bishop said. “Our goal will be to track those students until they move into careers. We want to know whether the students we touch ultimately do go into scientific fields. The key is that they be prepared and motivated.”

The VAEI seeks students who are curious, creative and persistent, Bishop said. The challenge is to create a culture of learning that sparks children’s interest and motivates them to “discover” science.

“Our focus is on doing science: We want our students to think and act like scientists,” Bishop remarked. “We believe that when our students leave, they’ll be critical thinkers and problem solvers.”

The focus of this first-year session of the middle school program was on the diversity of individual species. Students studied the relationship of a specie’s living and non-living environment, investigated how organisms adapt to survive in those particular environments, and did an in-depth investigation of a single organism.

In year two, the same group will concentrate on the diversity of habitats and ecosystems. They’ll look at plant growth and the challenges a habitat presents to plant growth. They’ll build land and water systems that mirror real world habitats and add organisms to them each week. They also visit Pierce Cedar Creek, where they collect data, conduct field investigations, and then build a model of the study site.

In the final program segment in year three, students will focus on the genetic diversity and human health links to disease and do independent research projects. To draw parallels between human health and disease, the students will delve into microbiology, biotechnology, cell growth and development, and the genetics of organisms. 

Randy Schregardus, a 21-year veteran of middle and high school science teaching and curriculum development, leads the middle school program. Schregardus spent the majority of his career in the Holland Public School system, where he was science department chair, as well as chair of Holland Public’s Science Olympiad and U.S. First Robotics teams. 

In my 21 years as a teacher, Schregardus said he became frustrated with things such as unmotivated kids and teacher-centered approaches to teaching and he w to do something about it.”

“Coming here to the education institute gives me an opportunity to try some things that I’ve been working on for years,” he remarked.

Schregardus said the way science is taught in middle school and high school settings can often be boring and uninteresting to students.

“In a way the experiment here was to see if the techniques I’ve been using and that are  consistent with what they’re using here, will actually motivate kids to want to learn science,” Schregardus said. “We did that by giving kids choice and by using technology and living organisms. It worked pretty well.”

The middle school science education program will be followed in August with three sessions of the VAEI’s Classroom Science Investigations program, which the institute introduced last year. CSI combines professional development opportunities for Grand Rapids area science teachers along with enhanced science instruction for their fourth and fifth grade students.

The institute also offers a Science on Saturday program, a two-hour science workshop for third and fourth grade students and their parents.

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